“Remember the days long gone by. Ponder the years of each generation. Ask your parent and let her tell you, and your grandparent, who will explain it.” – Deuteronomy 32:7
What do we see when we see the elderly? As we breeze by we may observe stooped shoulders, crooked backs, gnarled hands, uncertain gaits, wrinkled skin.
But beneath these superficial indicators of age are people. Perhaps the elderly woman you passed was once a homemaker, or a doctor, or a secretary, or a clerk. Perhaps she was a traveler, or a soldier, or a nurse. She played bridge, or canasta, or Mahjong. She volunteered her services.
What do we see when we see women who once walked with a confident stride now shuffling, grasping their walkers as their balance leaves them? Do we see our mothers as accumulations of books read, tears wiped, dishes cooked, jobs well done, families held together, countries traveled, wars fought, and peace kept? Or do we miss this when we glance around them instead of at them?
My mother, Irma Gershkowitz, had been a homemaker, a shopper, a traveler, a player of Mahjong, a member of Hadassah, a community member, and a person who tried hard to make sponge cakes on Passover with varied success. She had a rocky but passionate marriage with my father. She deeply loved her sister until the day that she died. My mother savored white wine, the Boston Red Sox, and Cape Cod. In her day, she was a fierce shopper at Boston’s Filene’s Basement. She was a mean Scrabble player and an avid reader. She and my father wowed crowds at family parties with their dance skills. Irma G., like all of us, had her faults and her virtues, her likes and dislikes. In her eyes, face, and hands I see the accumulation of these experiences. But I had never taken the time to really see her as a person.
This was a shared project with my mother during the final year of her life where I photographed her in a century’s worth of hats. To say that Irma G. was an animated subject would be an understatement. When she donned a hat, her anxiety disappeared and she beamed. In front of the lens, her moodiness dissipated like heavy fog. She laughed, she posed, she flirted and teased. At times her eyes closed as though she was elsewhere and she raised her hand upwards as though grasping for something unknown. The project transported her back in time physically and perhaps spiritually, as well.
My mother delighted in preparing for the photo shoots and in concocting creative poses. Whether she was wearing a beret, or a straw hat, or a kerchief, she reveled in seeing herself in the photos and noted how lovely she looked. She especially loved sharing those photos with others; these photos were a gift that validated both her past and her current identity. Most of all, the project gave her the gift of time with her daughter and to her daughter, the gift of spending meaningful time with her mother.
Leann Shamash, a photographer and Jewish educator based in Greater Boston, aims to find spirituality through the lens of photography and poetry. As a Jewish educator, she hopes to visually convey the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, that all objects, however mundane or small, can cause wonder and radical amazement. The camera is a lens that uncovers the soul, and whether the subjects are people, living or inanimate objects, each of them are imbued with inner beauty.
Leann teaches Grandparenting Through a Jewish Lens for Hebrew College and will soon begin teaching a class on Photography and the Scroll of Esther. She is the author of the blog Words Have Wings where she combines photography with her poetry.